Generation Spaceship Short Story Review: Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” (1957)

Initial note: This is the inaugural post in a series of vintage generation ship short fiction reviews. You are welcome to read and discuss along with me–all of the stories I’ll review will be available online–as I explore humanity’s visions of generational voyage!

Next up: Clifford D. Simak’s “Spacebred Generations” (variant title: “Target Generation”) in the August 1953 issue of Science-Fiction Plus (Internet Archive link).

I’ve compiled a helpful list on the theme.

(Bob Layzell’s cover for the 1980 edition of A Sea of Space (1970), ed. William F. Nolan)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” (1957) first appeared in the July 1957 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher (Internet Archive link). Despite the simple premise, Oliver’s powerful delivery and imagery reaffirmed my love for generation ship stories and their common tropes: generational change, the science of survival, the architecture of arks, the moment of arrival on a new world….

The story tells the tale of Samuel Kingsley, who, from birth, “walked his own path and fought discipline like a wild stallion” (14). His world, bounded by the metal “belly of [a generation] ship,” is all too small (15). He tries to escape into books but their tales of men who “struck on their own” adds kindling to his burning desire to escape.

The mechanisms of control, that have kept generations focused on the mundane rituals of survival in an enclosed and perfectly balanced world, kick in as they have for hundreds of years. The Heritage Day celebration, performed at The Show (the ship’s central square), a “perfectly ordinary tri–di theater,” a sensory bombardment of reaffirmation of Conservatism—stay the course! Humanity is at stake! Earth is but a wasteland!

“This is Earth. This was your planet. Look at it now. Sam looked, his heart thudding like a wild thing in his chest. He saw desolation, and death, and worse than death. He saw great cities gutted, their buildings shattered, their streets ripped like tissue paper. Black windows stared at him with cold stone eyes. A few figures that might have been human stumbled through the ruins, clawing at their faces, their shredded clothes, their blistered bodies” (18).

After Heritage Day, when the smallness of his world is put into perspective, Sam tries to do what is expected. He joins the hydroponic team. He tries to believe that “the voyage would never end” and that “the Ship was all there was” (20). But the crew know his rebellious past. They pass him over, despite his brilliance, for a position in the crew. And, after years of work, his passions can no longer can be restrained and he sets off into dark tunnels away from the bowels of the ship: “AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY. Sam smiled and stepped into the cave of night” (23).

Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)

At its core “The Wind Blows Free” explores the generational trauma of interstellar voyage. The mechanisms of control–Heritage Day and its searing images of societal destruction, the rigid roles and regulations, the separation between colonists and crew–that enabled humanity to make its journey outward become the very forces keeping humanity encased within the metal vessel. While only the crew know the secret, they are possessed by a fear of the outside world. In tradition there is certainty. In ritual there is affirmation of purpose. Perhaps the subliminal impact of Earth’s devastation, used to compel all to focus their efforts on survival in the depths of space by highlighting the devastation of Earth, remains imprinted in the minds of the crew.

While I’m unsure if Oliver wants the reader the take the logic in the following direction—a figure like Sam, impulsive and brilliant, is the very sort who might create new and devastating conflicts on a virgin planet.

Despite the story’s brevity, Oliver makes the generation ship feel real: the room with dusty spacesuits, the metal catwalks, the hydroponics bay, the small cells called homes….

Highly recommended.

~

Note: Please join my read-through of vintage SF generation ship short stories. You can find this one here.

MPorcius’ reviewed the story here. He also enjoyed it.

(Mel Hunter’s cover for the July 1957 issue, ed. Anthony Boucher)

(Jean-Claude Forest’s cover for Fiction, #68 (1969), ed. Alain Dorémieux)

(Uncredited cover for the 1st edition of A Sea of Space (1970), ed. William F. Nolan)

For additional book reviews consult the INDEX.

31 thoughts on “Generation Spaceship Short Story Review: Chad Oliver’s “The Wind Blows Free” (1957)”

  1. I am so keen to read this. But on the back of your last post I ordered a copy of A Sea of Space last Friday. It should be here in the next day or two. Trying… to… resist… reading… it… on… line…

  2. Joachim,
    I’ve been a fan of Chad Oliver since reading his The Winds of Time. This story was very well written and thanks for the link since it saved me from adding to my TBR pile by buying A Sea of Space. Probably just a minor quibble on my part and I don’t know if anyone else was affected by the tri-di theatre where Heritage Day was viewed, but I felt it a minor detraction from the timelessness of the story?
    I agree with your overall assessment of Sam, but I’m not convinced that “For five years, Sam worked in the hydroponics chamber at the same job…He did it better than it had ever been done before” (10) really proves he was bright.
    Anyway, I guessed the ending of the story about half way through and when I was finished I had one thought: I can’t believe the crew never made an announcement to the colonists.
    I sampled some of the other stories in the magazine without being hooked so it might’ve been the best in the issue?
    I look forward to reading the next story!

    1. Hello Andrew, and thanks for joining the read-through! I’ll probably have my review of the Simak story up this weekend.

      1) I’ve only read one other story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 1957 issue. I remember enjoying the metafictional fun of Kornbluth’s MS. Found in a Chinese Fortune Cookie. I reviewed it a while back here: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2015/01/16/book-review-the-marching-morons-and-other-famous-science-fiction-stories-c-m-kornbluth-1959/

      2) I, too, was perplexed by the actions of the crew — but, as I suggest, their actions are symptoms of the brainwashing and hundreds of years of ritualized action. When the ritualized action no longer had purpose when they arrived at their location, the rituals continued as they gave meaning and structure to existence.

      3) Related to this issue, the Heritage Day portion was my absolute favorite section of the story — it provides the method in which certain paths of behavior were encourage and justified. It conveys the central mechanism by which control was established by the crew. If you view it, and of course life in such an enclosed space with so few choices, as creating deep generation psychological trauma, then the actions of the crew make more sense — they too are afflicted by it. They are acting from both fear of what is new and the lasting trauma of the voyage….

      1. Well said! And gave me pause to consider:

        “Two Crewman were in the corridor…seated at a small table, playing cards.” (12) when Sam arrived The standing general order was probably a simple directive to prevent entry beyond that point. It made the crewmen comfortable to follow the rules and was the main reason for their existence.

        It makes me wonder whether the crew actually knew what they were guarding after that many generations? If they did, then the crew was in an excellent position to control the colonists education so the original announcement could’ve easily been eradicated.

        1. I suspect the Crew did know — I’ll try to find some evidence later when I get home….

          I would suggest that not only did they want to continue the control they had experienced for hundreds of years but also they too were victims of the brainwashing! They were fearful of the outside.

  3. (Spoilers ahead)
    I too found the motivation of the ruling class–the “crew”–a little mysterious. I can see how you would justify their perspective with reference to the trauma of surviving nuclear destruction, and the ultimately suicidal attachment to the rituals of survival. I still didn’t buy it or see how it could be sustained for over three hundred years.
    I also found the Heritage Day ritual one of the most powerful sections of the story. And excellent way to info dump the traumatic core of the ship’s culture.
    Nonetheless, this plot conceit drove home the contemporary context of the story. Oliver’s illustration of the state sanctioned conservatism of the US in the first decade of the cold war is pointed. It reminds me of the argument made by the Situationist International about the market value of nuclear terror, and the way this was exploited to not only sell barely adequate “family” nuclear shelters, but also the entire spectacle of compliant survival in the 1950s (here: http://www.bopsecrets.org/SI/7.hibernation.htm). In fact, Philip K Dick makes pretty much the same argument in an excellent short story a few years in advance of the situationists: ‘Foster, You’re Dead!’ (1955)
    I really dug one of the chief underlying themes of the story: the “fake” reality of the ship, versus the “real life” of Sam’s rebellion, and the snapshot of the other free fugitives at the story’s end.
    Unfortunately, Oliver’s vision of freedom sounds something you’d get served up by some tech bros these days.
    Sam, as the ambivalent model of freedom, is very “masculine”. He may have attempted to rape Susan in the first page of the story (‘Susan […] was unhurt but hysterical’). To an extent the conservative subjectivity against which the rebels is presented, partially, in pejoratively “feminine” terms: compliant and submissive. Sam’s refusal to buckle down to the crew is represented as, in part, an exemplar of a strong, virile, independent individualism. When he meets other free ones outside the ship at the end, they are ‘men […] [b]ig men […] their muscles as golden as the sun in the sky’. Apart from the presumably unintentional homoeroticism, the implication is either that only men have escaped outside (which doesn’t sound sustainable), or that the women are elsewhere, perhaps hidden or further away from the threatening bulk of the ship. But this is just speculation. What is certain is that Oliver’s outlook, no doubt liberal and progressive for the 1950s, is shot through with patriarchal assumptions that go beyond the characteristics of Sam. Or am I just imagining this?
    Still, the story gets my patented tick of approval.

    1. Thanks for the great discussion points!

      I can’t wait to post my review of Simak’s story as well — he, too, postulates a brand of religious conservatism (his story is far from as articulate and concise though). It’s hard not to read Simak’s as a critique of 50s society as well…..

      I struggled with the role of violence (and implied sexual violence) in Oliver’s vision. Hence, I get the nagging feeling that Simak is setting Sam up to be a the very sort who might create new and devastating conflicts on the new planet. I also assumed that as the ranks of men outside the ship grew they might liberate others from the vessel? Oliver is careful not to suggest too much of the outside world — I think it might weaken the overall logic of the story! hah.

      I can’t wait to compare Sam with Jon in “Spacebread Generations” (variant title: “Target Generation”) (1953) — he too is forced to violence but has deep regrets for his actions (I’m not sure Sam has the ability to reflect deeply on what he does)… for Jon, violence was not an easy choice. I find Jon more sympathetic than Sam.

      Enough with the Simak talk! I can’t wait for you to read the Simak stoy as well!

  4. Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the comments.
    What I found most troubling about Sam’s sometimes violent behaviour, was not the violence so much as some of the content. At least in the case of the implied violence to Susan at the beginning.
    Sam definitely toys with the idea of returning to the ship at the end in order to spread the truth he has found. I could imagine a sequel of sorts where he and the others infiltrate the ship and overthrow the crew.
    I’m keen to read the Simak. I love his novel ‘City’, and his story ‘The Big Backyard’. Though I read a novel of his recently, ‘Ring Around the Sun’ that was ok–though very good in parts.

  5. I liked the writing of the story, Sam, and how his characterization progressed, but I wasn’t satisfied with the ending or the McGuffin of the story. Evidently, after Heinlein, writers are expected to come up with a cool gimmick for generation ship stories. Now that I’m reading these stories along with you, I’ve been rethinking the concept. I really love Orphans of the Sky but I’m starting to doubt that crews would forget their mission. We haven’t forgotten what people were doing in ancient Greece 2,500 years ago. I recently read Children of Time where the crew remembered but became resentful. I thought that was more realistic. I think if Sam had known his plight, he would have been resentful too.

    I’m not really criticizing Chad Oliver’s story that much. It was a good story for the time. But I am thinking SF writers feel the need to come up with a good McGuffin to surprise readers when writing a generation story, and I think we need to examine them for realism.

    1. Thanks for joining the read through!

      What didn’t you enjoy about the ending? I liked the implication that there were others like Sam who had previously escaped. And I like the concept that ritual becomes the entire framework of meaning. The crew was susceptible to their own propaganda!

      Note: I didn’t completely understand first time I wrote the comment that you are more talking about Heinlein than Oliver. See the Simak story I just reviewed for a “we forgot about our destination but it was all planned.”

      We haven’t forgotten about Ancient Greece because it is considered a key component of Western society, a key part of our curriculum, and frequently in our popular media (Wonder Woman, 300, etc.). I would posit that IF we deliberately excised teaching and engaging with a particular topic — ESPECIALLY in an enclosed and far easier to police society like a generation ship—knowledge of it would definitely be forgotten! So no, I do not buy the history comparison…..

      1. I was disappointed with the Oliver ending because those people Sam saw weren’t doing anything.

        I still don’t buy that people would forget the mission.

        In the Simak story, the mission was designed for the crew to forget. But I don’t buy that either. Jon finds the teaching machine. Such a machine could have been routinely used to keep the crew informed.

        Heinlein, Oliver, and Simak all promote an unrealistic premise that the crew would forget and the ship is automatic enough to preserve them anyway. I don’t believe either could be true.

        1. I think it’s interesting to interrogate the idea of regression in Heinlein, Oliver, and other generation ship stories. In the case of Heinlein, it perhaps tells us more about his scepticism about the importance of the social bond over his emphasis of the primary role of “significant” individuals. For Heinlein, society usually appears to be just a bunch of jerks too sunk in their herd like conformism to be of much use apart from being a mass foil to the genius of his protagonists. I love “Orphans of the Sky” but often find Heinlein’s default “big man” historical schema too much to take.
          Perhaps we should also be interrogating the conceit of sf from the golden age to be “realistic”. What is striking about much of this, particularly the so-called “hard-sf”, is how unrealistic it is when it comes to questions of social- relational processes. The question then isn’t, perhaps, one of “should we aim for more realism?” (a crazy thought considering speculative accounts of the future are always going to be unrealistic precisely because of their speculative nature). But rather that sf is really just a sub-genre of fantasy! Something I’m not sure I’m willing to accept just yet…
          Briefly, on the question of a historical forgetting. For much of the time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, knowledge of the ancient Greeks was eclipsed in Western Europe (though not in Eastern Europe and the Arab world). The idea of such a forgetting, or at least the idea of a mythological conception of the past, is not beyond the realm of possibility. Though I admit it does seem strange that such an idea can be cashed out within the limits of a generation ship. I’ve still yet to come across a completely convincing account of this. Though Harry Harrison’s idea in Captive Universe to have the makers enforce a deliberate forgetting is getting there (perhaps?).

          1. Unfortunately I remember little from Orphans — although I have a review on my site.

            I tend to believe—if a generation ship was self-sufficient and didn’t require a large crew—that forgetting is absolutely possible in a metal box in space. It’s like a prison — the amount of psychological, physical, and emotional control one can exert over thousands of years without substantial external stimuli….. Whether the process is natural is a different story I find harder to believe. In Simak’s case it is definitely designed. A controlled social experiment (that the ending was planned is another highly improbable element), if Jon’s speculations about his experience are correct.

          2. But an interstellar ship would have many times more ways of recording history than we did since the Greeks. A ship would have photos, videos, and digital libraries. They would have extensive education systems. They would have jobs that related to the mission.

            In all these stories, the people also forget their astronomy, cosmology, and other sciences. In some, they don’t even get to see the stars. I just don’t think that would happen.

            Yes, I understand that realism crimp fiction’s style. Basically, these stories are saying to the readers: What if a starship crew forgot their mission. That is a cool concept. It has a sense of wonder. A wow factor. But why keep pulling off the same gag?

            Chad Oliver took up the challenge and took it even further. What if a crew forgot they were on a mission and even forgot they had landed. Cool idea, but really?

            I was way more impressed with the idea of Sam not fitting in. Oliver developed a good character with Sam. But I believe the story was marred by the idea the command crew had to hide the mission from some of their members.

        2. In response to JAMES: It’s been far too long since I read Heinlein’s Orphans of Space — I have a review on the site. I’m not commenting on his story. However, Oliver’s doesn’t fit with the other two. In Oliver’s case the people are controlled through brainwashing. And, they still had a crew which navigated and jobs for everyone else while the ship was still on its voyage. The crew prevented the people on the ship from realizing that the voyage had ended.

          In Simak’s formulation there is a deliberate DESTRUCTION of knowledge (the book burning) which exasperates the forgetting. It isn’t just people forgetting…. In addition the teaching machine was hidden and that people were selected psychologically selected for the mission (perhaps those more likely to no think independently). I am not really trying to defend Simak’s formulation — I think it’s the weakest and least airtight of the bunch.

          1. But why would the crew suppress the knowledge of the mission in Chad Oliver’s story? They’ve even suppressed the knowledge that the mission is over and they have landed.

            I understand science fiction writers want to come up with a neat idea, and that’s cool. But I’m realizing that they are contorting a lot to get their trick over to the reader.

            In the Simak story, the original creators of the mission felt the crew needed to forget their mission. So at least Simak comes up with an answer to this plot point. I disagree with the planners, but Simak does give a reason. Actually, exploring that reason would have been a good story.

            With Oliver’s story, Sam doesn’t learn why the crew does what it does.

            There’s a certain amount of O’Henryesque plot manipulation in these old science fiction stories. Not as bad as the man who sells his watch to buy his wife a comb, and she sells her hair to buy him a watch chain.

            The reason why Heinlein’s story has had great lasting power is the line by line action of the story is good too. So “Universe” and “Common Sense” don’t depend entirely on their gimmick.

            1. They don’t suppress knowledge of the mission precisely — only that they’ve arrived at the destination.

              I mention this extensively in my review and previous comments. There’s a simple reason — susceptible to their own brainwashing + generational trauma passed down due to the devastation they experienced on Earth and the fear that their mission would fail. They are fearful of the new world. They retreat to what they know.

              As per the brainwashing, did you not read that central portion? It was terrifying to Sam! It deeply affects others — including probaly the crew.

            2. It’s still not a believable explanation. The passengers on such a generation ship would feel their lives were being sacrificed so that one generation, the final generation, could experience living in a new world. That final generation would feel the burden of all those sacrificed generations and not want to deny what was given to them.

            3. I don’t believe it is that simple when you are dealing with trauma…. in John Brunner’s “Lungfish” (1959) he also suspects the final generation will refuse to leave the ship. It is their home. They were born there and raised to thrive there. Why would you leave? It’s everything you know.

            4. I will admit its an interesting idea, that passengers on a generation ship would refuse to leave it. I’m getting old and would hate to leave my home. I need to think about it. I’ll reread the Chad Oliver story and read “Lungfish.”

              This actually sounds more realistic than the society forgetting the mission.

            5. Chad Oliver also wrote an earlier generation ship short story, “Stardust” (1952), five years before “The Wind Blows Free.” I have a few planned before I get to that one.

              Judith Merril is next!

  6. Despite the traumatic core to Oliver’s story, I agree with James that the cover-up practiced by the crew is so effective. You would imagine that cracks would have already appeared in this practice long before Sam’s story.
    With regards to the “forgetting”. Certainly, you would need a selective breakdown of the ship’s technology. On the one hand, life support and engines would have to continue functioning; on the other, all cultural records (or at least most) would have to become inaccessible. I could imagine this happening more readily with a fully digitised archive, at least in terms of the sensitivity of the hard drives, or whatever tech is imagined.
    I’m caught between the idea of realism, and the fantastical quality of all fiction (let along just sf). The generation ship sub-category appears to me as a type of parable about the conceits of industrial civilisation–particular that conceit which imagines technique triumphing over nature.

    1. Perhaps that’s why others have already escaped the ship? Sam isn’t the first. He might have had the temperament of someone who had to strike outward — others might have deduced in other ways the reality of their existence. I would suggest that Oliver’s refusal to explain why others have escaped is a brilliant touch. I’m all for limited information. And, of course, the reader assumes until near the end that Sam is the first.

      But yes, I agree that the parable qualities are fascinating. Many of these endings however about man refusing to leave the ship (the crew in Oliver’s and the final generation in Brunner’s “Lungfish”) suggest that technology can only take one so far….

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